I will give you a direct answer: to be able to go to milongas you need basic social skills.
When you are invited to a party, a friendly social gathering, you present yourself with a pleasant attitude, clean, well dressed, and you balance your way of addressing other guests at the party, formally or informally, based on your relationship with each person.
If you’ve never been to a milonga before, I recommend procuring an invite from a regular attendee. This will be a bridge to help you integrate with the crowd of participants.
Often, you have opportunities to meet people in class who could serve as your link to milongas: other students that started before you and now go to milongas.
If you only take private lessons, your teacher is your connection to milongas. The main task of an Argentine Tango instructor is to prepare you to go to milongas.
You should not expect to dance at your first milongas. Try to set yourself at ease by removing any anxieties caused by feeling obligated to dance. Going to a milonga does not imply that you “ought” to dance. A milonga is a social gathering that has the main goal of facilitating the dance of Argentine Tango among its participants. Still, this is the end result of a self-calibrated socialization process. This process starts in your classes. You will do well at milongas if you have this in mind from the beginning of your learning path, in your class. We dance because we are free to dance. It is not possible to dance, for real, under the pressure of obligation. Therefore, it is also important to be considerate of others and not make anyone feel obligated to dance with you.
This word evolved from the West African Bantu language, in which “malonga” means “word”, and “milonga” is the plural of “malonga”: “words”
It is hypothesized by historians that the African population of Rio de La Plata used this term in relation to the “payada”, a musical genre in which two individuals compete by playing guitar and improvising verses, asking each other questions. The rhythm of this genre evolved to the rhythm we now know as milonga.
When the dance of Tango appeared, it was a technique of partner’s dance used to dance any danceable rhythm. Waltz was the most popular at the time, but soon the milonga rhythm was identified as a better fit for that particular dance technique.
As this rhythm, and the way of dancing to it, grew in popularity, “milonga” also became the name of the gathering and the place where this dance was practiced. The word “Tango” was initially a synonym of the word “milonga”, and they later became the name of two differentiated rhythms. Tango dance parties and the location where it is danced kept the name of “milonga”, as well as its crowd of participants, “milongueros”.
Milongas, meaning “Tango dance parties”, have been happening for more than 130 years. During this time, milongas developed a set of codes that cultivate efficiency, maximizing the possibility of great dancers appearing, and allowing the continuity of its existence as a precious cultural gem.
Poet and lyricist
(25 January 1885 – 22 October 1937)
Lyrics for tango were born around 1914, based on those ones conceived by Pascual Contursi that year and the following years (“De vuelta al bulín”, “Ivette”, “Flor de fango”, “Mi noche triste (Lita)”), and they were growing strong very slowly. So much so that in Carlos Gardel’s repertoire tangos were, until the next decade, a rare bird. There was not even a notion of how to sing a tango, a standard that Gardel was gradually establishing after 1922. That was, precisely, the year José González Castillo truly disembarked in the genre with the lyrics of “Sobre el pucho”, after Sebastián Piana’s music, which was introduced at the talent contest organized by Tango cigarettes.
José Gobello (Crónica general del tango, Editorial Fraterna) stated about this work that, with it «some novelties broke into tango that the tango literary work of Homero Manzi would later turn into true constants. By the way, Pompeya («Un callejón en Pompeya/y un farolito plateando el fango…»); later, the description of the neighborhood and, soon, the enumeration as a descriptive procedure».
But in those lyrics there is something else, metaphor, that springs up in the memory that the malevo devotes to his lost love «…tu inconstancia loca/me arrebató de tu boca/como pucho que se tira/ cuando ya/ni sabor ni aroma da». It is clear that González Castillo was a forerunner, and also that other later lyricists were who deepened those trends. Continue reading.
“Cortinas” are small pieces of songs that separate different sets of tangos, milongas or valses (“tandas”). Each “tanda” contains four songs by the same orchestra. In this way, you know that after the “cortina” a new set, played by a different orchestra, is coming, usually a different rhythm and style than the set played right before. The “cortinas” are also a chance to change partner. The etiquette in Buenos Aires is to dance with the same partner until the end of the set. So, when the “cortina” starts to play you can say “Thank you” and go back to your table. The “cortina” makes clear that the set is over. You will have to wait for the next set to begin before to ask any other partner to dance. Once you and your partner get into the dance floor, you want to make sure what kind of rhythm (slow, fast) is being played, so please don’t start to dance right away! “Tandas” of Latin rhythms, Swing and Argentine Folklore are also played in Buenos Aires milongas.
“Cabeceo”: eye contact . Asking someone to dance
Facing the fact that to be rejected is always painful, the Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) developed the “eye contact” as the proper way to ask someone to dance. They just look at the person they want to dance with. This applies either for men or women. If the man wants to dance, he will let the woman know by a nod of head towards the dance floor. If she does not want to dance, she will deny with the head. If the woman wants to dance, she will answer back with a smile or an assenting sign with her head. After these subtle signs, he will go to her table (or where she is) and take her to the dance floor. If the other person does not want to dance (man or woman), when the “eye contact” occurs, he/she will look to a different direction. Another way to ask a woman to dance, and this one is maybe for the more braves, is to go to where she is at and introduce yourself (if you don’t know each other from before) and/or start a conversation. After exchanging some words, you can ask her if she would like to dance with you.
Tango is a SOCIAL dance. It is not a sport, so the milonga is a place not only to dance, but also to meet new people, chat with friends, etc. In Buenos Aires if a person come out of the blue and asks you to dance, it is considered a very aggressive attitude. It will be almost like saying: “I just want to dance with you and I don’t really care what you think about that”. There are many benefits of these “techniques”. One is that it takes in consideration the feelings of both partners, so when the dance finally happens, they both know they are where they want, which is the most important requirement to have a good dance. They are not dancing because they have to. Also, it is part of the ritual of tango which is a very intimate dance. I think that if you are learning to dance a foreign dance, like tango or any other, you have to try to understand the codes that come with it, because for sure you will find out they have some kind of sense.
Line of dance
The line of dance is not an Argentine invention; it did not begin with Argentine Tango. The line of dance was already in the European dances in fashion of that time (1800’s). The counter clockwise direction roots in ritual dances that proceed even the social dances that originated during the Renaissance. The Argentine Tango dancers just adopted it. In Argentine Tango the line of dance is an expression of the dance itself, understanding it as a way of walking. Also, it is the result of an agreement that shows the respect among the dancers on the dance floor.Seeing it from a practical point of view and making analogy: it is like traffic on the freeway, without the speed, but everyone is going in the same direction in your lane of traffic.
In my opinion, starting Argentine Tango should not be different from entering any social community for the first time. Before traveling abroad, we try to find out about some specific local rules and customs that, if not observed, paid attention to, could put us in trouble. When we begin at a new job, we do not start by saying that things had been done wrong (even if it seems so at times), and by teaching everyone new ways. When we start socializing with any unfamiliar party, we listen, look around, pay attention, learn.
All teachers I have taken lessons from spoke about the rules, at least to certain extent. It might not be happening everywhere in every class people go to. I believe that instructor must speak about such matters as line of dance, navigation, social etiquette, in their classes. If your tango instructor never mentions that during lessons, then, perhaps, he or she is not qualified to teach tango, or does not intend to prepare the students to be social tango dancers. If your goal is to attend milongas, you better find another class. Behaving as an adequate member of the tango community right from the start is more important for your success than knowing fancy steps.
Unfortunately, some people who take up lessons, attend milongas, are not interested in a social aspect of tango. For them tango means putting on a vintage dress with sparkles or a fedora hat, and become a passionate, exotic night creature that in real life they are not. Of course there is nothing wrong in dressing up and having fun per se. The problems begin when they bump into (pun intended) those for whom milonga is not a Halloween party, but a place where they open up, look for genuine connections, a social ritual where the codes of behavior are not arbitrary. The rules of etiquette are in place for good reasons. They ensure that all the participants enjoy themselves in a safe environment, minimizing negative feelings and frustrations that may arise from social interactions in close quarters.
Understanding a culture, becoming part of it might be a fascinating journey, but it takes time and effort. Tango is a culture, and as such, should be approached with sensibility and respect.